The recent proposal by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that settlers wishing to remain in Palestine should be allowed to do so opens a very interesting opportunity to examine some of the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Whether or not it was designed as an attempt “to expose the real face of the Palestinians” through their habit of rejectionism or was a “trial balloon” to judge the reactions of the settlers, it is nonetheless an idea that should be examined in greater detail.
The immediate reaction of the far Right in Israel was rejection, because they perceived the proposal as an indication of Netanyahu’s willingness to withdraw from the heartland of the territory given by God to the Jewish people, stating repeatedly that Eretz Yisrael is only for the people of Israel. The militarists and military experts rejected it out of hand because the settlers remaining behind would be immediately massacred by those bloodthirsty Arabs “who have proven their hatred of Jews throughout history” as several of them stated on Israel radio.
Immediate Palestinian responses were also of rejection, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stating, “No Israeli settler will be allowed to remain in a Palestinian state.” We all recall President Abbas’s previous statements that no Israelis would be allowed to remain in a Palestinian state – “not a settler and not a soldier,” I have thought about this issue for years and I have spoken with tens of Palestinian leaders and officials including the current Palestinian president and the previous Palestinian prime minister. I have stated to them and in lectures in Israel and around the world and even presented to those in charge of the US negotiation team that if I were sitting on the Israeli side of the negotiation table I would demand the right of Jews to live in a Palestinian state as a matter of principle.
While also noting that there would probably be very few who would wish to implement this principle, I could not support a Palestinian state that would, by definition, be Judenrein. I say this both because the state of Palestine is being established on land which embodies the history and heritage of the Jewish people – the land of the Torah and the Prophets, and also because, in the interest of developing real peace, it is essential for the Palestinians to learn to live with a Jewish minority in their state as we in Israel need to seriously improve the relations with the Palestinian minority in our state.
In my discussions with Palestinians on this issue I learned that it is very important to clarify the various meanings of certain “code words.” What led me to dig deeper is that almost all of those I spoke with told me that they had no objections to Jews living in Palestine, only to settlers. Or, some said that they object to Israelis living in Palestine.
This perplexed me and when I probed deeper this is what I discovered: the idea that “settlers” would remain was perceived to mean that islands of Israeli sovereignty and control would exist within the Palestinian state, and it was this that was unacceptable. “Settlers,” in the Palestinian political reality, are usurpers of land and rights, using force and “legal” means of control to deny Palestinians independence and freedom.
When I asked under what conditions “settlers” could remain in Palestine, many responded that if they agreed to live under Palestinian sovereignty and Palestinian law, paid their taxes and did not act against the state, had no armed militias and their communities were open to Palestinians to live in as well, so “ahalan w’sahalan” – they are welcome.
Many also responded that if their communities were built on private Palestinian lands they would have to leave and the original landowners would have their land returned to them – a principle that the Israeli Supreme Court also maintains.
I made similar discoveries when digging deeper on the issue of a continued IDF presence in the Palestinian state. I came to understand that from the Palestinian point of view, continued IDF presence meant continued Israeli control and denial of Palestinian rights and sovereignty. I found it interesting to learn that during the time that General James Jones, the US national security advisor, was developing a proposal for dealing with security issues in an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty, Abbas asked Jones if it was possible for the US to send a contingent of American Jewish soldiers.
Jones of course laughed at the proposal and said that nothing like that could even exist in the US army, but what was intriguing to me was that Abbas was searching for a solution that would alleviate Israeli fears by basing the US force on Jewish soldiers, while totally rejecting the idea of Israeli soldiers remaining in Palestine. So once again trying to probe deeper I asked Palestinians about the following idea: what if Israeli soldiers remained in Palestine for a designated time period in specified areas and roles but under Palestinian command – would this be acceptable? I explained that the purpose of their presence would not be to deny Palestinians their sovereign rights to control their borders but only to deal with real issues of security – battling terrorism, which is a common need for both Israel and the Palestinian state. On this I received a high level of acceptance.
I believe that if we are clear in defining words and their meaning and in setting principles it is possible to reach Palestinian agreement that their state would not be Judenrein and that Israelis who agree to live in Palestine as Palestinian citizens, under Palestinian law and Palestinian sovereignty could be allowed, by agreement, to do so. Now the question is would any of them remain and if they did, would they live beyond the day of Israeli military withdrawal? This is a real challenge and no Israeli government could withdraw without having significant mechanisms in place to protect the Israelis who would become Palestinian citizens and proven Palestinian commitment to protect their Jewish citizens.
ANOTHER ISSUE worth looking into which is not only theoretically interesting but has enormous implications for developing peace is the curricula that Jewish-Israeli citizens of Palestine would be expected to study. The Palestinian citizens of Israel study the Israeli curricula including the Israeli historical narrative. Would the Jewish-Israeli citizens of Palestine have to study the Palestinian curricula and the Palestinian historical narrative? Even raising the question should demand that we should perhaps re-examine what is taught in Palestinian- Israeli schools. What should be the rights of the national minorities within a nation-state? Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people has an over 20% minority of Palestinian Arabs. The Palestinian state may have a significant Israeli-Jewish minority. Would the rights of that minority be only individual rights, as Israel grants to Palestinian citizens of Israel, or would we at that point also demand national collective minority rights? Former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad once said to me, “We will allow Israeli Jews to live in Palestine as Palestinian citizens under Palestinian law and sovereignty. We will treat our Jewish minority and grant them rights and demand from them obligations exactly as Israel does for its Palestinian minority.” That is something definitely worth thinking about.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His new book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas from The Toby Press.